Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Addiction: the differences, the overlap, and the treatment (part 1)


Reports of celebrities, politicians, and newscasters being ousted because of sexual abuse and harassment charges continue to dominate the news. Good!

Conversations about the problem of unwanted sexual advances — and the abuse of power to exploit people sexually — are uncomfortable but really important. When the #metoo social media posts went viral it was a stark reminder of how widespread this problem is.

For a number of years I worked in the recovery field — specializing in sexual addiction — and I’ve had the occasion to deal with these issues a LOT. Hearing the stories in the news lately has brought up a lot of thoughts. Let me share some of them …

First off, let’s get clear about the terms

SEXUAL HARASSMENT — Webster’s dictionary defines sexual harassment as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate, such as an employee or student.” Guidelines of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have formed the basis for most state laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace. The guidelines state:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

  • submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment,

  • submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or

  • such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

SEXUAL ABUSE — Sexual abuse goes further than harassment in that it involves sexual contact (not just words) with someone unable to give consent (eg. a child, or someone with dementia) and thus involves some form of “forcible compulsion.” When force is immediate, of short duration, or infrequent, it is called sexual assault. The American Psychological Associate (APA) defines sex abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.”

RAPE — According to Wikipedia, “Rape is a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration carried out against a person without that person’s consent. The act may be carried out by physical force, coercion, abuse of authority, or against a person who is incapable of giving valid consent. The term rape is sometimes used interchangeably with the term sexual assault.”

Why these distinctions are important

Distinctions matter because there is overlap between these problems, and these overlaps can be confusing. Sexual harassment is different than sexual abuse and sexual assault. Rape and sexual assault are sometimes used interchangeably, although the term “sexual assault” might best be used to describe unwanted sexual contact that does not involve penetration, reserving the term “rape” for unwanted sexual contact that does involve penetration.

Continue reading Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Addiction: the differences, the overlap, and the treatment (part 1)

The spiritual word for “hitting bottom” — we hear it less but need it more than ever

In recovery, “hitting bottom” is a core concept. To be willing to do the work required to overcome addiction, a person has to reach a point where they see that their life is not working. This happens when we experience suffering as a result of our addiction.

Hitting bottom happens differently to different people. What might cause someone to hit bottom might not be enough for someone else. In the early days of AA, the only people trusted to really “be in recovery” were those who’d lost everything to alcoholism. It was assumed that, unless someone had lost it all, they hadn’t hit bottom, and wouldn’t be ready to fully participate in the program.

It didn’t take long, however, for them to find that newcomers to the program had “hit bottom” in other ways. They’d experienced enough pain from family relationships, even if they hadn’t lost their family; or they’d experienced enough negative consequences in their work, even if they hadn’t been fired from their job.

“Hitting bottom” happens whenever you decide it happens. Actually there is no “bottom.” You can always lose more. I’ve seen people “hit bottom” when they were confronted by a teary-eyed loved one. I’ve seen others Continue reading The spiritual word for “hitting bottom” — we hear it less but need it more than ever

Advice for a woman whose boyfriend looks at porn and wants her to be his “accountability partner”

I got the following email from a woman who has been reading this blog. I thought it might be helpful to share her questions, and my responses (with her permission to share this). For those who might not be clear about the terminology, her boyfriend uses accountability software that creates a report about the web sites he looks at. She is his “accountability partner” in that she is the one who get the reports. Here’s her question, and my response  …

My boyfriend struggles with porn, and I’ve been his accountability partner (A.P.) for 6 months. I read his reports, which are sent as an email  every morning … and so I begin my day the moment I awake reviewing every word, site, text, you name it that’s in this report. It’s become part of my daily routine. Approximately 15 minutes a day I spend going over every detail, filled with anxiety I will catch him having done something. I’ve become addicted to monitoring him and I don’t trust him.

He’s told me he’s moved on from pictures and videos to gazing at real women in the world daily, and undressing them with his eyes. He said he is overwhelmed as they are everywhere and his problem is worse. He has no strong male support and I’m really the only one he can be held accountable to in his eyes.

It’s killing me. I can’t start my day without reviewing the previous day’s activity, and it doesn’t feel normal to track his every mood …  I finally told him last night I can’t do this. I begged him to let me off it. I cried, “Please…it’s killing me reading this daily. It seems you’ve been better, but I feel I’m the only one holding back your dam bursting. It’s wasting my days and I’m addicted to searching.” He began to cry.

(Later edit) Oh one more thing … he’s my ex boyfriend now. I broke it off a week ago from when this was written and he told me he’d still like me — his now ex-girlfriend — to be his A.P., regardless of my feelings. He knew I took being his A.P. seriously and that he absolutely would seek out bad stuff the minute I left the site, so I’m riddled with tremendous guilt over this. I haven’t left the site yet.

Ok, your thoughts….I’m sure you have an opinion here!

**********

My response:

Thanks for reaching out to me, and I’m sorry to hear about your painful story. As you suspected, yes I do have an opinion about this. Actually there are a few things that your email made me think of, so I hope you don’t mind if I share my thoughts in sort of a list form, more or less with some of my random thoughts and responses:

1. As a general rule, most sex addiction counselors (including me) do NOT recommend having the partner of a sex addict be the one to get the reports for Internet usage. I say “general rule” because there are probably always going to be some exceptions to any rule when it comes to relationships. But just so you know, I pretty much always discourage couples from doing what you guys have been doing … for the reasons you describe in your email. It creates additional suffering for the partner (you), because each day you’re reminded of this struggle, and you get triggered emotionally by reading through the reports.

Granted, some partners of sex addicts WANT to be reading the internet usage reports of the addict, if they’re struggling to trust the accountability process. They might need to see the reports themselves for their own peace of mind. Even in that case, it still is often damaging for them to be getting the reports, and they will often decide they don’t want to see them anymore.

2. Rather than have their partner reading thru his reports, a sex addict REALLY NEEDS to have a peer group, a sponsor, or some trusted person read them. This means that the addict needs to have another person he’s talking to about this, not just you. It puts too much pressure on you and your relationship for you to be both his partner and his sponsor. You are the beneficiary of his recovery, not the facilitator of it. Someone else needs to do that.

3. The fact that he doesn’t have another person helping him in his recovery is a big red flag. It’s going to be hard for him to recover without having other people to talk to. This is really really important.

Accountability software is a great tool, and is really helpful for people struggling with Internet porn, especially in the early stages of their recovery. So nothing I’m saying here is meant to disparage using this software … just that it needs to be seen as part of a larger set of commitments and actions that constitute “working one’s recovery.”

4. The fact that he feels such a strong pull to act out (“look at bad stuff online”), and struggles with sexually compulsive thoughts (undressing women mentally that he sees on the street) is a sign that he needs to do more work on the urges that are driving his recovery. In AA, they would talk about this as a “dry drunk” … someone who’s desperate to drink, and clinging to their sobriety by their fingernails. Once again this relates to the issue that there’s MORE things he needs to do for his recovery … OTHER THINGS than just having this accountability software.

By the way, I say this with no judgement. Pretty much every guy I’ve ever worked with has been in those same shoes. It’s just a sign that he needs to step up his work of recovery.

Here’s the important part for you to know: it’s NOT HEALTHY FOR YOU to be part of this. As you pointed out, it creates an unhealthy attachment for you to be digging into his history, turning you into a recovery policeman instead of a romantic partner … or as is the case now … an ex-romantic partner and friend.

5. I really don’t recommend that you continue getting these reports, even now as his ex-gf. Somebody else needs to get them. By continuing to do this role, you are hurting yourself, and you’re not really helping his recovery, because he needs to expand his “recovery team” to include a wider group of people.

So there you have it … I hope that’s helpful. Blessings to you as you work through your own sadness about this relationship, and try to set up healthy boundaries.

God is at work … you don’t have to do everything

One of our challenges today is that we are hyper-aware of all the problems and crises going on around us, which creates a heightened sense of anxiety. We are inundated by frightening and negative news stories, which serve as reminders of all the things that can go wrong.

So now young parents are so frightened by the prospect of an inattentive — or predatory — babysitter that they refuse to go out. Young people are so fearful of their relationships falling apart that they hesitate to make long term commitments. In our work or ministry involvements, we are so concerned about potential problems that we over-function, so that “all the bases are covered.” When we lay in our beds trying to get to sleep (or back to sleep when we wake up at 3AM), our minds spin with possible problems and worst case scenarios about our children, our finances, our marriage, our church, our work, and our world.

It’s hard to just relax, and trust that things are going to be okay! And yet, that’s exactly what we need to learn to do.

Without an internal sense of peace, a deep awareness that no matter what happens, we are going to be okay, our anxiety will create all kinds of problems. It will drive all kinds of bad behaviors, like trying to micromanage situations, not trusting people, refusing to take risks, and turning to addictive substances or behaviors to try to sooth ourselves.

For many addicts, it was precisely this issue — trying to soothe anxiety — that started us down the path. It’s also well-known that stress and anxiety are significant and common triggers for relapse.

This is precisely where the beliefs we profess — about a God who will care for and protect us, who will work all things together for our good — need to be internalized. Continue reading God is at work … you don’t have to do everything

The epidemic of our time that leads to alienation and fuels addiction

Carl Hammerschlag is a psychiatrist who worked with Native Americans in the Southwest, and taught psychiatry at the University of Arizona School of Medicine for 20 years. He wrote a book called “The Theft of the Spirit,” which is mostly a memoir about his experiences during those years, and the things he learned.

One chapter was especially interesting and challenging, with the intriguing, but unfortunate title: “On BS.” (He spells the word out, but I’m going to refrain. If you need a hint, it’s something bulls do.) He says he can’t think of a better word to describe this phenomenon, which has taken over in our world today: the epidemic of spin, denial, image, and half-truth, which not only keeps us alienated from each other, but also from ourselves. Listen:

“BS has become a prominent ritual in our culture. It’s when people say things they don’t mean; it’s also when people mean things they don’t say. BS is the basic problem that keeps us from being emotionally healthy. Most of us pride ourselves on our ability to recognize it and therefore avoid being taken in by it, which is why we’re so surprised when we become captivated by our own. …

“What we say is often not what we believe and vice versa — and this goes for presidents, judges, NASA engineers, doctors, and religious leaders. All of the institutions that once sustained us have become less credible. We are being deluged by BS and growing so used to it that we choose not to see that the Emperor has no clothes.

“In public and private life, we’ve become more expert at denying what we really feel to be true than in acknowledging it. If we do it long enough it becomes difficult to distinguish what’s real from what’s make-believe. Then the BS becomes a Belief System and that’s how we get into trouble.

“In such an overwhelming barrage of stories told to make the teller look good, the search for truth easily gets lost. In a world obsessed with public relations and image, BS can run our lives.

“So what is the truth? The truth is always closer to what we feel in our hearts than what we know in our heads. The body knows more than the mind chooses to acknowledge. If you ignore what you feel long enough it’ll kill you.”

Continue reading The epidemic of our time that leads to alienation and fuels addiction

Why being “normal” is a ticket to depression, disease, and addiction

Every day I am becoming more aware that our cultural environment is damaging to our well-being. “Going with the flow” — being “normal” — in our world today will take us to a place where we are physically unhealthy, massively stressed-out, spiritually cynical and disengaged, depressed, and addicted to something or other.

I was reminded of this when I came across an editorial in The Guardian (a UK Newspaper). Author George Monbiot takes a look at what’s happening in our world, and points to the system itself — our way of living — as the heart of the problem:

“What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness? Yet plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness now strike people down all over the world…

“There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.”

This social isolation is built into the systems we’ve created. So many things in our society emphasize competition, rather than collaboration and community:

“The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

“Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.”

We’ve heard this before: life in western society today is stressful and competitive. The word that keeps coming up, as a summary of the source of so much of what ails us, is isolation. Continue reading Why being “normal” is a ticket to depression, disease, and addiction

Dealing With Emotions and Recovery from Sexual Addiction

emotionsOne core insight in my recovery — and spiritual renewal — was this: It’s essential to acknowledge and deal with our emotions. Denying them (by telling yourself “I shouldn’t feel that”) or stuffing them is a recipe for depression, hidden resentment, spiritual bypassing, and burnout. An important part of the recovery experience for me was developing a deeper awareness of what is happening in my heart, and acknowledging what I’m feeling, instead of trying to make myself feel something else.

In the past few years, I’ve come to view emotions with an added nuance. While still valuing them, and finding it important to deal with them, I have come to recognize how fleeting they are. They are like waves that wash over the shore, and then dissipate, only to be followed up by another wave. Like the writer of Psalms says: “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). They are important, we must tend to them, but we are not at their mercy.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people say — when struggling to come to terms with something painful — “I don’t want to think/talk about it (because) I’m afraid if I open up that door I’m going to start crying and never stop.” But doing this work — of looking within and dealing with what is there — is essential for their recovery and ongoing emotional and spiritual well-being. It can be done safely and helpfully with the guidance of a skilled counselor.

For most of us, the struggle with our emotions from day to day is more mundane. It has to do with anxiety, sadness, insecurity, shame, or fear that we don’t want to deal with. So instead, we distract ourselves with busyness and frenetic activity, or numb ourselves out with chemicals or addictive behaviors.

Jesus once said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). I often think that addictive substances and behaviors are ways we try to escape from having to mourn. And of course the problem is that if we don’t mourn, we don’t find comfort. We find distraction, and often, addiction.

One of the skills learned in long term recovery is the ability to ride the waves of emotion, and live with a sense of inner peace, even amidst the swirls of elation, fear, anger, sadness, etc. This takes time, and part of the spiritual journey is cooperating with God to bring healing, wisdom, and inner resources to enable me to do this.

The celebrated Sufi poet Rumi has a famous poem about the importance of welcoming this variety of experiences into our lives. There’s great wisdom in this, because often these emotions have something important to teach us. Even the negative ones. Listen to what Rumi has to say:

Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every day a new arrival

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight. …

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from Beyond.

– Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)






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Ending Denial and Facing the Grind of Addiction

aa-wreckedlifeEveryone agrees that whatever addiction you have, it starts out fun. Whether it’s the great taste and comfort of food, the mellowness or rush from a drug, or the excitement and stimulation of something like gambling or sex … there’s a reason we turn to it, and come back to it again and again. It’s exciting, it satiates a desire, and it feels good.

But at some point — usually much earlier than we realize — it turns on us.

Instead of controlling it, it controls us. We find ourselves going back to it even though we promised ourselves we wouldn’t, and the limits we set keep getting violated.

One of my favorite books this year is “Out of the Wreck I Rise,” by Niel Steinberg and Sara Bader. It is essentially a compendium of quotations by literary figures about addiction and recovery. Some are long, some are short … almost all of them are really really good. Not only that, Steinberg and Bader’s writing — which comes in the form of extended introductions for each topical chapter — is interesting and helpful too. Listen to what they have to say about our denial in addiction, and the crucial step of realizing it’s out of control and no longer “fun”:

Fierce denial is common, and so a jarring incident, or, more likely a series of escalating incidents, is usually required before change is contemplated. Those confronting their addiction begin by addressing the crisis and, only then, are forced to understand the routine that led to it. The beginning of a new life is the gradual realization — the honesty emphasized in AA — that there is a sameness to addiction, a dreariness, a drudgery. It is the identical thing happening over and over again, every day, with only one avenue of escape, one possibility of change, an option that, viewed by a person sunk in the routine of dependence, at first seems incredible, unimaginable, ridiculous.

That first step — whether taken on your own or pushed to it by somebody else — is recognizing that you aren’t doing this of your own will. It’s a compulsion. You don’t think using your substance is fun because it’s fun to be constantly scourged with the need for drink or drugs (or sex). You think it’s fun because it’s what you do all the time and you’re secretly terrified at the thought of not doing it, of enduring the awful hunger you suffer when you stop even briefly. It’s like a bad job that you keep telling yourself you must like, because you go there every day and it’s all you’ve got.

Addiction is not a bad choice. It’s an obsession: grinding, dictatorial, relentless. The great thing about recovery is that you don’t have to succumb to your addiction every day. You don’t have to spend your life doing this.

finding intimacy and freedom from pornography and sex addiction